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Business - Written by on Wednesday, May 20, 2009 7:18 - 0 Comments

Who’s Managing Your Digital Self?

One of the areas of research that I am involved in with Naumi is the future of what we are calling The Pervasive Personal Identity and the exciting possibilities and troubling potential that come from our rapidly-increasing digital footprints.

When most of us think of our digital profile, we think of the footprint that is created by our active maintenance – à la Facebook or LinkedIn.  On these networks, either we or those we “know” are responsible for maintaining our rich user profile that comes to define us in the digital world.  There is tremendous power in these networks for facilitating both our social and professional lives, but one of the associated challenges is that there are so many of them – how can one keep track of them all?  If you have maintained a consistent online handle, things can be much easier, but for those of us who haven’t, there are emerging tools such as UnHub that act as simple aggregators, allowing users to create a single destination where their many profiles can be found i.e. http://unhub.com/richardbranson without having to purchase and set up an independent domain.

For better or for worse, there is also another very important level of profile maintenance that is taking place in the background, requiring very little effort on our part – passive maintenance.  Programs such as ChoicePoint have become important destinations for comprehensive personal information by aggregating data from a number of public sources and privately held databases.  By serving as mass aggregators, with over 17 billion records in ChoicePoint’s case, such organizations are able to sell profile information for the purposes of insurance, reference checks (tenant, employee…) and many other uses.

While such services can be quite convenient, they are not without important risks, the tip of the iceberg being data integrity (what if information is wrong/outdated) and data security (they present a single point of failure in the case of compromise).

Curious to investigate my own ChoicePoint profile, I have attempted a number of times lately to take advantage of the opportunity to review my information for free (available once a year).  Interestingly, I have received the message below when seeking profile access from my office in Toronto.  Funny…I always thought Toronto was within Canada.


Now I don’t want to be alarmist, but we have all heard stories of online missteps that have ended in less than ideal circumstances, often due to oversharing of information.  Therefore, it is important to not only think about, but purposefully monitor and maintain your profile on the web – afterall, you are what Google or the aggregators say you are, at least to non-discriminant or lazy searcher.

Just the other day I was involved in a dinner conversation over which a colleague mentioned that they had seen an unflattering 1980s prom picture of another colleague at the table go up on Facebook a few hours earlier. The subject of the photo replied “Yah, sure glad I took that down.” Not seconds later did another friend chime in with “oh, that picture…you mean this one?”, triumphantly holding up their iPhone for all to see.  In the minutes that the photo had been up, it had been not only viewed, but saved for others to enjoy.  Now this story was all in good fun, but it raises the important notion of control over your digital identity.  Who is really in control?

Will online missteps such as an embarrassing/uncomfortable photo surfacing (or worse) matter as much in future to a generation who has grown up with eroded privacy expectations?  Or, will it be understood that perhaps it will only matter in certain relevant contexts?  Is the social contract that we have entered into with not only friends, family, colleagues, but also many of the programs/networks that we have integrated into our daily lives be “enough to protect us”?  Has anyone out there stopped for long enough to read a Terms of Service agreement lately?  I suspect that if we did so, we may not be so comfortable…

More to come on the happier side of the Pervasive Personal Identity in the next entry.  Until then, keep combing the vast Net out there to ensure that your identity that is becoming quite pervasive, and personal, is in fact doing you justice. 

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